Actor sibs closer, still ways apart

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AFTRA has moved its headquarters from New York to a Los Angeles site that it shares with SAG -- even as relations with the sister union have hit an all-time low.

Talk about awkward moments in the elevator.

"What we want to focus on is serving our membership," said Kim Roberts Hedgpeth, AFTRA's newly relocated national executive director. "Many of our members are dual cardholders, so there's a convenience to our members."

Hedgpeth, who expects to continue crisscrossing the country for business on both coasts, moved into a house in Los Angeles with her husband last week.

"We are enjoying the benefits of a California backyard," Hedgpeth grinned. "We're enjoying the orange tree in the rental property we've moved into, and for somebody coming here from New York, that's a real treat."

The union's top paid exec was preceded in her move from New York by several other staffers from AFTRA's equal-employment and finance departments. Those eight staffers joined existing Los Angeles operations, including a four-person communications department and several employees in the sound recordings and entertainment programming departments.

Entertainment programming, which services contracts with producers of TV shows, is a growing area of operations for AFTRA -- much to the chagrin of SAG officials.

Many at SAG, which represents broadcast TV actors and some on cable shows, believe that AFTRA has been using too loose an interpretation of jurisdictional agreements between the unions in organizing primetime programming shot digitally. They also grouse that AFTRA often settles for contract terms that are less generous than those in SAG pacts, undermining SAG's ability to secure lucrative new contracts of its own.

The debate over such issues has gone on for years and figured in the defeat of a 2003 proposal to merge SAG and AFTRA. But for the first time recently, the animus has threatened even the unions' long-standing joint bargaining relationship for the all-important film and TV contract with the Alliance of Motion Picture & Television Producers.

The SAG national board recently affirmed that joint negotiating relationship but with a controversial proviso involving the concept of bloc voting. Once talks commence -- likely sometime after Jan. 1, with the current film and TV pact to expire in June -- SAG intends to count votes of SAG members on the negotiating committee separately and then cast votes unanimously on bargaining issues.

AFTRA opposes the implementation of bloc voting and demanded an explanation following news reports of the SAG move in July.

"We have received no communication (either) formally or informally on the request that we made of (SAG) on July 31," Hedgpeth said. "So, as to what exactly the SAG position is, we've heard nothing."

The exec director noted that some national operations remain based in New York, where AFTRA also maintains a New York local office at 39th Street and Madison Avenue. The union's broadcast and signatory departments remain at that site, as well as the office of AFTRA's top elected leader, national president Roberta Reardon.

New York also is the location of continuing negotiations on a new sound recordings contract, several weeks after the former pact covering 9,000 recording artists and others expired June 30.

"The issues are quite difficult," Hedgpeth said. She added that additional sessions will be scheduled after Labor Day.

AFTRA's board approved moving the union's headquarters to Los Angeles in 2005, motivated by strategic and financial considerations.

"Los Angeles is our largest local and also an increasingly important center for the various areas of work that AFTRA members are engaged in," Hedgpeth said.

About 45% of AFTRA's 70,000 members are based in California.

"Also, the cost of real estate in Midtown Manhattan is significantly higher than in midtown Los Angeles," the exec director noted.

To accommodate HQ staff, AFTRA made use of existing ninth-floor space that it leases in the Wilshire Boulevard midrise it shares with SAG, which occupies the building's seventh and eighth floors.

"There was space available in the L.A. local office," AFTRA spokesman John Hinrichs said. "We're doing some remodeling here and there, but we're basically moving people into space that already existed."

AFTRA and SAG maintain large, separate boardrooms on the ground floor of the building, where stage actors union Actors' Equity also maintains offices.

As for any occasional awkwardness among AFTRA and SAG employees who find themselves sharing the occasional elevator ride, Hinrichs said, "The staffs still try to keep a collegial relationship."

SAG spokeswoman Pamela Greenwalt sounded a similar note of civility.

"We've been in the same building with AFTRA for years and think it's great for the members and for the organizations to be housed near each other," she said.
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